By Kate Ratner
On November 4th 2020, the United States experienced a historical election, and it wasn’t only due to the voter margins. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced the first state-wide stay-at-home order on April 1st of this year to tend to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and since then, Pennsylvanians worried about the upcoming election and the steps we must take to protect our communities while fulfilling our civic duty to cast our votes. Prior to the 2020 election, poll workers in Philadelphia county were typically older Americans who are more susceptible to fatal cases of COVID-19. Multiple organizations recognized this concern and began to recruit high school students and young adults to work the polls on Election Day. A particular organization that caught my attention and many of my Philadelphia School District peers was The Poll Hero Project. According to their website, “The Poll Hero Project was founded by a group of Princeton University students, Denver East High School students, and a University of Chicago Booth School of Business graduate” with a mission to advocate for democracy and nonpartisanship this election season.
I was assigned to work at Frankford High School in Northeast Philadelphia. The Board of Elections never alerted me of my poll assignment, so I had to call and confirm. I interviewed WHYY Associate Media Director, Joy McFadden, who volunteered to be a poll worker through Power to the Polls, an organization similar to Poll Hero. Though Joy and I signed up through different sites, neither of us were alerted of our assignments.
“The process was easy to sign up,” Joy shared, “but I had to call back to someone to actually get my location”.
Considering the importance of the 2020 election and the urgency for poll working staff, I expected to receive my polling place without having to act first. High-school students and other first time polling staff wouldn’t have necessarily thought to contact the Board of Elections unless they are prompted to do so.
On Election Day, I arrived at my polling place at 6:30am to find that I was the only poll worker among a group of anxious voters. As a first-time poll worker having only minimal training from the video tutorial I had watched days earlier, I immediately worried that I was single-handedly going to be responsible for voter suppression in Philadelphia. This concern was much of an exaggeration, as other volunteers arrived and we managed to set up the machines after rewatching the tutorial. However, Frankford High School opened to voters twenty minutes past 7. To some, that precious twenty extra minutes spent in line could be a bus ride to work, dropping their kids off at daycare, or making breakfast for their families. Though many voters waited patiently for us to power the machines, my anxieties lasted all day.
I shared these worries with other Philadelphians who volunteered to work the polls.
“I know [that] for a good number of people, they had to go to a completely different [polling site] because they hadn’t voted in so long,” says Central High School student Anacia Macon.
Anacia shared with me that her biggest concern at Lindley Academy Charter School in the Logan section of North Philadelphia was that many voters were displaced and weren’t given adequate information of where to go on Election Day. This inconvenience serves as a huge blunder for employed voters who have limited time to vote, or those who have no means of transportation to get from one polling place to the next.
Another Central student, Sara Heim, volunteered as a poll worker at Anna Blakiston Day School in Germantown. Prior to Election Day, Sara thought she would be working as a clerk at her polling location. However, she arrived to learn that there were enough clerks present, and instead, she had to assume other tasks. For first-time poll workers, it’s vital that they receive the correct position assignment, so they understand how to prepare. Like Anacia, Sara shared her frustration about the issue of misplaced voters at her polling place.
“For every single person who came in,” Sara said, “we needed to look up their division which was obviously really time consuming”.
In a few instances, Sara spoke to voters who had been turned away from multiple locations prior to arriving at the correct one. Many voters at AB Day School and other polling places were frustrated that they no longer had a sense of familiarity when voting. “[The unclear assignment of polling places] made voting a really confusing and stressful process,” Sara added.
It’s important to emphasize that a poll worker described the voting process as “confusing and stressful”. There is no reason why an election, particularly in a metropolitan city like Philadelphia, should inconvenience voters in any way besides waiting for their outside in the cold. A similarity between Frankford High School, AB Day School, and Lindley Academy Charter School is that they’re all located in Philadelphia neighborhoods with large minority populations. Despite the outstanding influx of poll workers in the Philadelphia area this year, there are still issues in the system that a fresh set of young poll workers cannot fix. In future elections, I hope that the Board of Elections will more effectively prepare first-time poll workers with separate training videos for each election officer position, an alert to each volunteer of their polling assignment and position, and a direct communication with each voter to guarantee that they arrive at the correct location the first time on Election Day.